Looking for Martha: Michael and Dan Do the Hamptons
Daniel Emberley, June 2012
Two years ago when we toured Long Island we skipped the South Fork, aka, the Hamptons. Most of the art sites I wanted to see are only open in the summer, and we’d already been to Montauk for our friends Bonnie and Caleb’s wedding. But, we needed to pick up keys from Bonnie in Manhattan, so piled into a rental with Catie Robbins and drove north to explore New York’s southern islands.
The southernmost is Staten Island. We’ve taken the ferry before to St. George and Snug Harbor, but it’s a big borough, and parts are easier to visit by car. We started at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. Jacques was a woman who married well and built a small collection of Buddhist and Tibetan artifacts in the first half of the 20th Century. In 1945 she constructed a New York-stone version of a Tibetan lamasery on the land next to their summer farm. Now surrounded by 1960’s suburbia, the Museum is a gem of a collection in a place you would not expect to find it. While we were there a thunderstorm burst over New York, and we waited it out watching the rain turn stairs into temporary waterfalls.
The staff at Jacques Marchais used to direct visitors to see the Frank Lloyd Wright house around the corner. New owners, though, got tired of uninvited tourists peering through their bedroom windows. I’d done my homework, switching between views in GoogleMaps to find that Crimson Beech is at 48 Manor Court. We did a drive by, but contented ourselves with a car-side view out of respect for anyone who lives in a Wright Usonian during a cloudburst. En route you drive through one of the borough’s nicest neighborhoods, substantial 1920’s homes surrounding a lighthouse on a hill.
South Beach sounds cool, a Victorian boardwalk-lined stretch of sand facing the Outer Harbor, but it made no sense to walk it in the rain. Instead we headed up island, just above Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the Alice Austen House. Austen was a Victorian woman of genteel birth, one of the first photographers. She lost her money in the 1929 stock market crash, and her work was forgotten for decades. When it was rediscovered in the 1940’s the researcher asked for more information about her, and was told she could be found at the Borough Poor Farm. Stunned to discover she was still alive, he got her work published, sold, and used the money to help her move into a more comfortable retirement. She frequently returned to visit this house, where she had lived most of her life. The site is run by a foundation, and the grounds maintained by the NYC Parks Department. Fascinating, with beautiful shore grounds and a great view of the bridge. A poorly prepared docent? Guard? Rottweiler? Led us through the house and pointed out binders of Austen’s photos for us to leaf through.
There’s a Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in the same neighborhood, but we decided we’d better hit the freeway to meet Bonnie. We crossed the Verrazano, crawled up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and up the West Side to Columbia. Donald Trump has finally developed his West Side rail yards, now a series of not-unattractive condo towers each prominently labeled “Trump Place”.
Catie had never explored Columbia University, so we parked on Morningside and showed off the campus as if we lived there. Highlights were West Side Market and Grant’s Tomb, then we booked it south on Broadway to join Bonnie for dinner at Le Monde. We’d never been here, although it’s been open for years, and serves quite good and unpretentious French. It was great to catch up. We headed out of town via the Cross-Bronx and Bronx-Whitestone to a Holiday Inn Express in Port Jefferson.
We started the Hamptons proper on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton. Somewhere on this street is Martha Stewart’s house. We didn’t have the address, but the street itself is lovely, lined with old-growth trees that meet above the road, an easy walk to East Hampton’s beach. At the end is Grey Gardens, the home made famous by Little Edie Beale and the Maysles brothers. We got lunch at a Whole Foods that pretended to be a farm stand, but was really just an under stocked Whole Foods.
Up the road in Sagaponack is Madoo Conservancy. This is an amazingly whimsical and lovely small garden. It has been intensively developed by writer and artist Robert Dash, who was part of a 1960’s colony of artists who summered on the South Fork of Long Island. It’s also incredibly hard to find. GPS got us to the site okay, but we then drove to a grassy roundabout with three gates. Two were locked, so we figured it must be the third. After passing tennis courts and a Takashi Murakami sculpture we came to a house which looked suspiciously like a place we were not supposed to be. Michael and Catie held me back from knocking at the front door for directions; instead we backtracked to find the entrance to Madoo hidden in hedges off the road.
Mr. Dash still lives on the property, but the site is all about the grounds, not the house. A neighboring farm’s guinea hens have free reign over the gardens. Dash has used mirrors and plantings to disguise the farm and edges of his space. In one space you look down and discover the path’s stones are laid out in the form of a giant fish. You turn a corner and find yourself in a grove of gingko’s, or facing a giant bust of Beethoven. A Chinese bridge leads you over a pond covered with what looks like moss, you only know it’s water because a branch-shaped fountain creates open pools in the green cover. It is truly a wonder of gardening.
A short drive east in Springs is the Pollock/Krasner House. Lee Krasner knew Jackson Pollock was a drunk when she married him, but hoped that getting him out of the City to the then isolated east end of Long Island would help. It did, for about a decade. After Pollock’s drunken death Lee kept the house as a summer retreat. It is beautifully preserved, on a fantastic site overlooking a creek and wetlands. You start the audio guide behind the house, watching the creek as deer and sailboats compete with the tape for your attention. You’re guided to the barn-turned-studio. Pollock painted some of his most important work here, and this is where Hans Namuth made his famous (in art history circles, at least) photos for Life Magazine. After working there for years, Pollock covered the floor with hundreds of Masonite dart boards for a fresh start. Then he drove into a tree and died, and Lee used the space as her studio for several decades. When curators restored the barn they found Lee’s flung paint on the walls, and Jackson’s flung paint under the Masonite on the floor. It is way cool; after donning booties you’re allowed to walk on the paint. You can see where paintings in the Met or Hirshhorn meet up with the drips. Krasner herself is amazing, maintaining her own career even as she nursed Pollock into his most creative period, and setting up a Foundation that maintains the house and nurtures new generations of artists.
Long House Reserve is the home of Jack Lenore Larsen. Larsen has been a major textile designer since the 1950’s. He introduced open weave, ikat, and batik techniques to the American public: if you think of chunky, funky-but-stylish 1970’s fabrics, you’re probably seeing his work. He created a dramatic Japanese-shrine-inspired house in East Hampton, and surrounded it with landscaped gardens filled with work by major contemporary sculptors. The house is not open to the public, as Mr. Larsen still lives here, but the gardens are, and are magnificent. Yoko Ono created a giant stone chess game for the space, which I started playing until warned not to. I can’t imagine Yoko does not want the piece played with. We preferred Madoo for its scale and whimsy, but were impressed with Long House’s Modern grandeur.
Guild Hall is both a theater and museum on East Hampton’s Main Street. They were between shows, but the Hall’s manager was still trying to get us to buy in their shop, while pushing programming that we would not be around to see. Odd. She reminded me of the kind of gallery owner who thinks it is sufficient to hang an artist’s work and have an opening, and after that if the gallery’s doors are locked it doesn’t matter. We stopped into the Clinton Academy Museum, a former school now housing the East Hampton Historical Society. They had a show of work by the family of American artist Thomas Moran. Not a great show, but better than we expected.
It was impossible to stay in the Hamptons for less than $300 a night. So we didn’t. An hour west on the Long Island Expressway is Islip Airport, and the La Quinta Bohemia. Classic Long Island suburbia, but only $100, and I was able to get a room free with points. Dinner was at Mamma Lombardi’s in Holbrook. Perfect red sauce Italian, giant portions, delicious food. We shared a stuffed artichoke, then Catie got a pasta primavera and Michael and I the Mamma’s Feast (salad, garlic bread, meatballs, pasta, sausage, braciole). Way too much, then the (Russian?) waiter brought the complimentary dessert, a cannoli so large and overstuffed with zabaglione cream that it was just sick. (But we enjoyed eating it anyway.)
What do you do on a Sunday morning on Long Island? No cultural stuff would consider opening before brunch, if people are even expected to be awake. We were awake in Bohemia. Catie and I looked at GoogleMaps and saw a causeway over to Fire Island. I’d always heard about the action on the west end of Fire Island, where you ferry over to the Pines or Cherry Grove and there are no cars allowed. It’s a long barrier island, though, and you can drive to the eastern half and park. Fire Island National Seashore (“FINS”) is run by the Park Service, and is spectacular. Boardwalks lead you into dunes, most covered with scrub, and over to the ocean. From there we took off our shoes and walked west on the beach which was filling with well-equipped families there for the day. There are tunnels under the dunes back to the parking lot. $15/car, but for the three of us, completely worth it. We got lunch at a diner in Center Moriches, and then drove east to Bridgehampton.
The lure was not the Ladies Guild Antique Show (“Look! Is that Martha?”), but the Dan Flavin Institute. We’d seen a fantastic Flavin installation in Marfa, Texas; he’s an artist who worked in fluorescent lights. That one and this, in a former African-American church, were both funded and are managed by the Dia Foundation. Downstairs was a temporary show by a French artist working in Bic pen ink; like, entire canvases covered in the ink that he gets from the factory. Okay. The stair hall is a permanent Flavin install of round fluorescents, like you would have found in a 1950’s kitchen, in three subtly different shades of white. Upstairs the main room is a series of spaces divided by walls of colored light tubes, making the white spaces around them glow pink, green, blue, and yellow. Fabulous. Since we were parked we shopped Main Street; the town is like a Ralph Lauren catalog come to life.
West in Southampton, the Parrish Art Museum has a cool pseudo-Tudor building. The summer show, photos of places protected by the NY Landmarks Conservancy, was okay; poorly hung, hard to read the labels, and only decent images. I suspect the book the show’s based on does a better job conveying the artist’s intent. The space itself, though, is great; lots of plaster casts of Greek sculpture, and a garden with rows of Roman emperors on pedestals. The shopping in Southampton was marginally more realistic, with a good kitchen store. Feeling peckish, we stopped at Carvel’s and headed out.
Our intent had been to get through New York City and stop at a hotel somewhere in Jersey. However, GPS told us we would be home by 8:30, so we decided to push through. An easy run down Sunset Highway, Southern Parkway, Belt Parkway, and over Verrazano Narrows. Thank you, Robert Moses! On the Jersey Turnpike there was a sign warning of congestion, so we switched over to 295 at Exit 4. We’d been told this is a good alternate; it parallels the Turnpike with a lot more exits, but then runs right up the Delaware River Bridge. All would have been great if not for the stupidity of D.C.-area drivers; we hit traffic in Maryland that slowed us right into Washington.
So, why the Hamptons? Catie said the word that kept coming to her mind was “deception”: a supermarket pretending to be a local farm stand, people with Brooklyn accents pretending to be locals, others who had priced out artists pretending to be “into” the arts. Honestly, it’s not much better than Rehoboth, or the Cape, or the beaches on Lake Michigan. Sally Quinn (current owner of Grey Gardens) wrote in the Post this week about how Nora Ephron created trendy summers for her circle at the Hamptons each summer. If you’re part of that world, I suspect you share picnics, and dinner parties, and go antiquing or check out the wineries. For us plebes, the art history and gardens made it worth visiting, but we can’t see ourselves returning. After all, we have an island we like to visit each summer: Manhattan <thanks, Bonnie and Caleb!>. Maybe one reason we like it so much is that the people we dislike are all inthe Hamptons?